Gertrude of Arabia and Other British Arabists

The New York Times recently published an article on Gertrude Bell, the English archeologist and intelligence officer credited more than any other single individual with creating modern Iraq, drawing the borders and choosing its king after World War I. Bell was a member of the Arab Bureau in the British intelligence office in Cairo along with the more famous agent, T. E. Lawrence. The Times’s point was that Bell’s legacy of a unified Iraq “is at risk of being undone” today, even as historic sectarian conflict between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds threatens to fragment the country.

But the other point was that Bell, and other British Arabists like her, spent years cultivating tribal leaders, sheikhs, and kings and gaining their trust, and their lives are woven in the tapestry of early 20th century Middle Eastern history. The Iraqis called Bell Umm’al Mu’mineen, or Mother of the Faithful.

Some were officially connected with the British government, but mostly they were freelancing. But they came from the ranks of the British establishment; their respective backgrounds were the same as that of Britain’s ruling class, and their influence, through their contacts, activities, and writings, shaped British policy in the region.

Ann Lambton—known as Nancy—was a Persian specialist who traveled widely in Iran. A Persian grammar and phrase book were among her published writings, and she was hired as press attaché at the British Embassy in Tehran during World War II.

In the 1950s, when she was back in London teaching Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, she had a role in forcing nationalist Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq, an opponent of British oil interests, out of office. Having made the case to the Foreign Office for Mossadeq’s removal, she suggested ways to accomplish it. Lambton also warned of the danger of an Iranian fundamentalist revolution against Shah Reza Pahlavi (who detested her) decades before it actually happened—and lived to see her warning come true. She died in 2008, aged 96.

Another influential British woman in the 1920s and 1930s was the prolific travel writer and formidable personality Freya Stark. Her early books, such as The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936) and Letters from Syria (1942), are travel classics. Stark lived among Arabs in the less Westernized sections of semi-colonial Baghdad, and often wore Arab dress. She wrote knowledgably about the complex political tensions that still plague the country today.

In World War II, Stark ran Arabic news broadcasts from Aden, in present-day Yemen, to counter Axis propaganda. She also organized Arab support for the Allies into the Ikwan al-Hurriyah (Brotherhood of Freedom) organization which, at its height, had more than 75,000 followers. Stark died in Italy, aged 100.

British male Arabists are overshadowed by T. E. Lawrence and his biographical narrative Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but others included Harry St. John Philby, the somewhat eccentric father of the Soviet spy Kim Philby. Philby Sr. served with the British administration in Iraq, and later as adviser to the Saudi Arabian King Ibn Saud; but he also distinguished himself as an explorer, crossing the Rub ’al Khali (the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest stretch of sand desert (250,000 square miles), located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. A dozen years later, between 1946 and 1950, Wilfred Thesiger, another British explorer, was to make a habit of crossing the same stretch of desert, and mapping large parts of it, including the mountains of Oman.

Officially, Thesiger was a member of the Sudan Political Service, but he also spent time living with the marsh Arabs in Iraq, and at one point was assigned to search for locust sites in the Arabian Desert by the London-based Middle East Anti-Locust Unit (desert locusts are the most dangerous locust species and can wipe out entire crops).

These men and women had a common purpose, which was to serve the interests of the empire, but they embraced the culture of the region, spoke its languages as fluently and familiarly as its natives (Philby, for example, spoke Urdu, Punjabi, Baluchi, as well as Persian and Arabic), and imposing Western democracy was not part of their agenda.

The US could have done with a couple of them, and still can. 

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